As he told us all, he floated like a butterfly and stung like a bee — he was the greatest of the great … his name was Muhammad Ali.
The legendary boxer, iconic athlete, activist and cultural figure died Friday night. He was 74.
“A true great has left us,” promotor Bob Arum told ESPN. “Muhammad Ali transformed this country and impacted the world with his spirit. His legacy will be part of our history for all time.”
He was born as Cassius Clay in 1942 and began boxing before he was even a teen-ager. He won Olympic gold in 1960 before turning pro and it was there where he became a three-time champ, compiling a 56-5-0 record with 37 knockouts — many of them the greatest moments in the history of the sport.
Then, of course, he was a prolific talker and also a man with a social conscious — the story of his career and life is one that will be recapped in countless stories and television segments in the coming days — but for collectors there’s one thing that resonates as we watch the montages and revisit his amazing life.
That one thing? Muhammad Ali is not found on an overwhelming amount of cardboard.
Ali has a ton more cards than many other boxers, but still not that much compared to other sports legends — and he’s easily among the biggest in terms of stature. In all, he has just under 1,700 unique trading cards — many of those in recent years where products from Upper Deck and Leaf Trading Cards revolved solely around him. He has just over 400 certified autographs and just under 700 memorabilia cards.
In 1991, All World created one of the first widely released boxing sets of the “modern era” of trading cards and he’s got several appearances there on no-frills cards. In 1992, Pro Line included him on a Pro Line Portraits Team NFL card — one of several non-football celebs — and that included his first certified autographs. He signed cards both as “Muhammad Ali” and “Cassius Clay” — and, while both of those cards had no number and a crimped Pro Line stamp in the lower right corner, they are both found as counterfeit versions as blank sheets made their way out onto the market after Pro Line faded into history. (Only consider them if certified and slabbed by either PSA/DNA or JSA/BGS. The same could probably be said for his 1992 Classic World Class Athletes card, which has popped up in volume since the news — with varying card backs.)
In 2000, Upper Deck released a Master Collection factory set that arrived in a wooden box with at least one autograph inside along with a glove card, a robe card and a trunks card to go with a serial-numbered set recapping his life and career. A second autograph was likely to be found in a mystery pack in the box, though some included 1/1 base card parallels.
In the last decade or so, boxing cards got a bit of a revival with a handful of sets. Ali appeared in a 2010 Ringside set, signing fewer than 100 cards, before Leaf created a pair of sets revolving around the champ — Leaf Muhammad Ali and Leaf Muhammad Ali Metal in 2011. These brands revolved around memorabilia cards and autographs from the champ — as well as others who were fans of the icon. In 2012, Leaf issued another product Muhammad Ali: The Greatest — a run of just 750 boxes that included just a single Ali autograph inside every wooden display box.
A new Ali set was scheduled for release from Leaf to arrive later this month — 2016 Leaf Muhammad Ali Immortal Collection — with every nine-card box including one training-worn memorabilia or autograph card inside and every five-box case of the product including at least one, sometimes two, cut autographs. That product’s status (if changing) should be addressed in the coming days.
Ali leaves an athletic legacy, a cultural legacy and a political legacy as well — he helped change both the sports landscape but also brought attention to social issues, too. In short, he helped change the world.
“It’s what he did outside of the ring, what he believed in, what he stood for, along with Jim Brown and Oscar Robertson, Lew Alcindor … Bill Russell, Jackie Robinson. Those guys stood for something,” Cleveland Cavaliers star LeBron James told ESPN. “He’s part of the reason why African-Americans today can do what we do in the sports world. We’re free. They allow us to have access to anything we want. It’s because of what they stood for, and Muhammad Ali was definitely the pioneer for that.”
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